Ocean Views: Wax myrtle, myrtle warbler

Wed, 02/01/2012 - 4:58pm

Grey is the color of February. But look closely; it can be a stunning grey. Charcoal grey trunks of shad, blotched with ash-grey lichens, almost luminescent in late-afternoon light. Stone walls, uncluttered by vines and leaves, weight hill and dale with intricate granite-grey tatted edges. Incoming weather brings skies of steel-grey flannel or quilted layers of smoke-grey clouds. But nowhere is the grey presented in a statelier manner than it is by the armature of grey-boned bayberry that spreads across the island.

Once uncommon on Block Island, Northern bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) is an abundant island shrub that seems to thrive along dunes and other nutritionally poor soils. Northern bayberry is one of three species of the wax-myrtle family found along the Eastern Seaboard.

Grey and green are the colors of bayberry. In summer bayberry is among the last shrub to leaf out, giving the island — in late June — a verdant green that is hard to imagine in February. Now however, bayberry grey is the color of land, which one might find tedious until one notices that some shrubs are adorned with blue-grey, pearlesque berries: bayberries.

These waxy pearls can provide not only beauty and fragrance, but also light and nourishment. Northern bayberry, also called candleberry, is well known in the history of New England for providing a source of wax from which candles can be made. Bayberries also sustain the light of life in our primary winter warbler. The myrtle warbler (the Eastern variety of the yellow-rumped warbler) is one of very few birds that can digest bayberries and convert the wax to needed carbohydrates. And so where northern bayberries exist in winter, so do myrtle warblers, and thus a flash of yellow to augment the grey.

For those of us who love the winter, February-grey is a comfort. For those of you who pine for spring, February is a transition month. Look among and between the grey with averted eyes, and you will detect splashes of spring colors about to burst forth. Northern bayberry skeletons will soon be tipped with maroon colored buds. Stonewall grey-green lichens and mosses will suddenly look effervescent. Red epaulets will emerge from blackbird shoulders. Afternoon light will be noticeably more yellow and less gold. Ocean-scoured boulders will suddenly sprout velvet-green algae. And one fine late February morning, you will step outside to the trill of red-winged blackbirds and see flashes of yellow-rumped warblers flitting between the grey bones of northern bayberry shrubs.

Go to the Ocean View Foundation Facebook page to find the answers to the following questions about Northern bayberry: Why don’t all bayberry bushes have berries on them? Are bayberries ever green and not grey? How many bayberries does it take to make a candle? What other birds eat waxy bayberries? How can bayberry shrubs survive in such nutrient poor soils? Or check out the following sources:

"The Ecology of Block Island, Proceedings of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey Conference," October 28, 2000.

"Coastal Plants from Cape Cod to Cape Canaveral," Irene Stuckey and Lisa Lofland Gould, 2000.






The following events and Ocean View Foundation programs are sure to help you endure/thrive in February grey.


Feb. 1st: Sunrise is 2 minutes before 7 a.m., and sunset is 2 minutes after 5 p.m. – finally.

Feb. 2nd: Winter Pot Lucks: Film & Food. 6p.m. at the Island Library showing of OCEANS

Feb. 7 & 21, at 8:00 a.m.: Crazy-as-a-Coot Bird Walk, call 595-7055 for location.

Feb. 12th: Listen for the first trill of the red-winged blackbird.

Feb. 20th, Great Backyard Bird Count This short walk around the Old Harbor is part of the National Audubon and Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s citizen science program. The observations that we make will be part of giant “snap shot” of birds seen in North America during February 17th – 20th.

Feb. 21st: Bayberry New Moon.

Feb. 23rd: Winter Vacation Day Trip off-Island to the Coggeshall Farm: This annual excursion for students will be to the Coggeshall Farm in Bristol, RI. Call 595-7055 to sign up.